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Review: ‘Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn’s’ satire weaves history, topicality and hardcore sex

(Magnolia Pictures)

Every critic has offered some variation of this sentiment when discussing “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn,” but it’s worth re-emphasizing: the title’s mention of “porn” is not metaphorical.

Winner of the prestigious Golden Bear award at the 2021 Berlin Film Festival, Romanian director Radu Jude’s satirical political comedy opens with an explicitly pornographic scene, a brief presentation of schoolteacher Emi’s (Katia Pascariu) scandalous sex tape that kickstarts the film’s chaotic narrative. Whether the sex is simulated or “real” is almost entirely beside the point: Jude’s film begins with a middle finger to its audience and stays in that mode for 106 minutes. This is a film that ends with Emi, having suffered the wrath of the conservative parents at her prestigious Bucharest private school, angrily transforming into a superhero and stabbing each parent in the mouth with a dildo. The film’s go-for-broke spirit is undeniable. 

You don’t have to enjoy what Jude is going for here, but it seems like most audiences who sign up for the ride will roll with and at least respect it (there were reportedly less walkouts at the New York Film Festival than some critics expected). Simultaneously an unrelenting mockery of pandemic life, a portrait of the rise of the global right, and a survey of Romanian history, “Bad Luck Banging” is unquestionably a blunt instrument. To make a somewhat ungenerous comparison, its engagement with contemporary topics reminded me of something akin to an Adam McKay movie – if McKay actually pushed as many buttons as he seems to believe that he does. 

Katia Pascariu as Emi in “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn.” (Magnolia Pictures)

Despite the more aggressive aspects of “Bad Luck Banging” – the hardcore sex, the dildo attacks, and the assaultive, quasi-Brechtian posture toward unsuspecting festival audience – there’s much more to be found in Jude’s film than mere trolling. The film is told in three distinct, yet interconnected chapters: “One-Way Street,” “A short dictionary of anecdotes, signs, and wonders,” and “Praxis and innuendos (sitcom),” bookended by the aforementioned sex scene and two variations on an ending. The irony dripping from these chapter titles is self-evident and consistent throughout, but Jude’s technique diverges pretty drastically as the film progresses. 

In the first chapter, Emi’s pornographic tape has leaked widely onto a porn site, and word has gotten around rather quickly. Grappling with the potential ramifications of this news, Emi wanders through Bucharest and makes various stops along the way. With the citizens of the city clad in masks, the pandemic hangs over every scene, becoming the dominant force even when confronted with this theoretically scandalous narrative. Indeed, Jude’s choices hint at a much subtler and more surreal political critique than what we get in the rest of the film. His camera follows Emi, yet it often pans and lingers, for several seconds at a time, on a location or static setting as she exits the frame. Borrowing a technique from slow cinema aesthetics, Jude captures a mix of the surreal and the mundane. What we’re left with is a portrait of humanity’s exacerbated post-COVID cruelty: a city symphony at an extraordinary moment. From cars parked on sidewalks to fighting with cashiers for no reason, the film’s world is as outrageously surreal and absurd as the narrative Emi finds herself embroiled in.

A scene from “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn.” (Magnolia Pictures)

Suddenly, the film pivots into a very different mode of address with its second chapter, a lengthy series of brief scenes (or anecdotes, to use the film’s word) detailing various aspects of Romanian history and quotidian life. To be perfectly clear, I know very little about Romanian history: there’s context here that the film clarifies for the viewer, but it’s important to acknowledge my blind spot as a critic. Regardless, Jude’s Godardian device is successful both as a provocation and as a cinematic essay, a complete break in the narrative flow of the film that prioritizes a more rhetorical sequence. Historical catastrophes and sexual images sit side by side as a narrator ruminates on each of these concepts, often making politically explicit what was only bubbling under the surface in the film’s first half hour. 

In its final chapter, Jude returns to the central narrative for a lengthy scene at Emi’s prominent school, where the parents have gathered in the decadent courtyard for a socially distanced interrogation of their children’s teacher. What (briefly) starts as a relatively calm event turns increasingly unhinged, as parents unleash their grievances against Emi; using the sex tape as a catalyst, parents complain about the school, what’s being taught, and attempt to remove her from her position, a familiar scenario for anyone who’s been reading American news lately as well. The talkiest section of the film, “Bad Luck Banging’s” final third morphs into a political showdown between a modest teacher and reactionary forces among the parents, whose anti-Semitic, anti-Romani, and anti-intellectual ideas become the focal point of Jude’s critique. Despite the limitations of the single location, Jude finds compelling methods to intensify what could be simply didactic, doubling down on absurd sonic and visual flourishes amidst the political clash. If it’s occasionally the weakest section of the film, it also remains funny and unpredictable in all the right ways.   

Still, it’s easy to imagine a viewer frustrated by this film’s choices – partially because those frustrations are deliberate. From its sexual content to its loose chapter structure, Jude is out to provoke and frustrate, to deny the viewer a conventional experience. “Didactic” is the operative word here, but much as American films have found themselves relying on a certain mode of direct political lobbying in the past few years, “Bad Luck Banging” is a film taking place at a very idiotic moment in history, when the stupidity is more out in the open than maybe ever before. In this manner, its didacticism is essential; in the process, it accomplishes the impressive feat of becoming perhaps the quintessential film about our global reaction to the pandemic thus far. More importantly, contrary to the milquetoast liberal sentiments of something like Steven Soderbergh’s “The Laundromat” or McKay’s “Vice,” Jude’s political and cinematic provocations have a genuine kick at times: by the time the film launches into Emi’s cathartic release, a fantastic cornucopia of dildos, violence, and outrageous special effects, it’s hard not to laugh at the guts on display. Playful enough to be engaging but caustic enough to pack a punch, “Bad Luck Banging” is worth the ride – as long as you know what you’re in for.

Star Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

“Bad Lucky Banging or Loony Porn” is now playing in select theaters.

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